Grape & Grain

Master of Wine Sarah Heller’s desert island wines

If you could take reds, whites, rosés, sparkling, sweet, and fortified wines – no more than two from each category – to a new planet, from which seven regions would you take them? Writer’s selection has some surprises

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 5:19pm

For anybody disappointed that this column has not focused more on things such as, say, actual wines, I must confess that since passing the Master of Wine exams I’ve taken a hiatus from the endless stream of tasting that was my pre-exam existence.

Apparently I’m not alone in abandoning the bottle in the afterglow of passing. I recently shared dinner with an MW who confided that he too had markedly reduced the volume and diversity of his consumption post-practical (the name for the tasting exam). As director of a large winery, he spends most of his time tasting his own wine or that of his immediate competitors.

Arguably, studying for the MW involves an aberration in the drinking patterns of virtually everybody, no matter how involved they are in the trade. There are few people – and certainly not most retail buyers – who have recent tasting experience of everything from semi-sweet red blends to grand cru Burgundy, with Georgian, Uruguayan and Oregonian wines thrown in for good measure.

In fact, for MW students based in actual wine regions, the difficulty of accessing this panoply of wines is a marked hurdle. Most wine industry folk inevitably gravitate towards that which is essential for their work and, with any remaining liver points, wines they truly love. Some of us are lucky enough that these two categories overlap.

The challenge with readjusting to civilian life is that our student mandate is to set aside personal preferences and to judge each wine based purely on the market need it fills. A white zinfandel must be judged against other casual-consumption wines, not against wines we personally want to drink. But after a few years in the programme, you begin to lose clarity about exactly which wines those are – especially if, like me, you decide you must forgo anything funky and interesting that might implant treacherous sensory memories in your head that could lead you astray in an exam.

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It was thus that, in the euphoric wake of passing the exams, I developed my own version of desert island wines: not so much individual brands I’d take to a desert island – even Domaine de la Romanée-Conti might get boring after the 1,000th bottle – but the seven regions I’d take along if forced to construct a new planet, while somehow having the ability to teleport over whole wine regions totally unscathed by our planet’s recent destruction (realism is not a key element of this game).

Furthermore, for each region, we can only take white or red wine (or rosé) or a special category like sweet, fortified or sparkling, with no more than two from each category (just because). Each region should be fairly narrow, so not “red Bordeaux” but “Médoc reds” – a category still broad enough that some of our city’s most prolific drinkers rarely feel compelled to stray outside it.

My personal list, honed over many evenings, is as follows: Barolo/Barbaresco (red), Northern Rhone (red), Champagne (red – just kidding! – sparkling), Cote de Beaune (white – sacrilege, I know; plus I would need a guarantee that not a single bottle would suffer from premature oxidation), Graves (white), Madeira (fortified) and Mosel (sweet). Budget is not a concern on this new planet – winemakers simply supply wine as part of their civic duty to maintain the peace.

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That there are no New World regions on this wish list certainly irks me; it’s definitely not that there aren’t spectacular individual producers to be found in spades outside of Europe, more that the prospect of never again tasting the glorious truffly musk of a perfectly aged Barolo makes me feel that planetary destruction is not the worst thing that could happen to a person.

In certain moods, I’d replace the Cote de Beaune with the North Island of New Zealand, Oregon, or Victoria in Australia; the Northern Rhone with Eastern Washington or Swartland, or even very reluctantly trade Champagne for northern California or the Mosel for Tokaji (still European, but vastly underrated and cheaper). But until somebody can produce the nebbiolo of my dreams outside Piedmont, I’m sticking to my guns on Barolo/Barbaresco. And if they’d throw in the island of Sicily (hey, Piedmont’s Savoys ruled it for seven years in the 1700s) to cover my funkier moments, I’d be one happy planetary pioneer.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer and the author of Diary of a Master of Wine Student